Classic Rock: Back Together on Cairngorm Granite
After 18 months separated by the Atlantic Ocean, our Creatives Editor, Alex, was recently reunited with his partner, Meagan, who finally made it over to Edinburgh from Montreal. And what better way to celebrate than a three-day round of some Classic Rock climbs? In this piece, Alex takes us, route by route, on his and Meagan’s journey through the Northern Cairngorms.
My introduction to Ken Wilson’s Classic Rock was at the Fort William Mountain Festival last February. Before Saturday’s ‘Climbers’ Night’ I had no idea what the event would entail. I hadn’t read the programme and the word ‘climber’ was enough to stir interest, but soon after the lights dimmed and the introductions were underway, a fire ignited inside me.
Classic Rock ‘describes and vividly depicts eighty of the finest lower grade rock climbs in Britain, many of which were established over a century ago’. Each route is accompanied by beautifully rendered photographs dating back to the early 20th century, sketches, creative articles and historical notes that not only tell their histories but evoke their unique characters.
No doubt some will dismiss these ‘easy’ mountain routes for harder, more technical climbs. After recounting my climb of Squareface on Beinn a’ Bhùird to my friends, many of them simply brushed it aside: ‘Why would you walk three hours to climb a V.Diff? There’s better and harder stuff within an hour’s reach from the car.’ But to neglect a route because of a long walk-in, let alone its grade, is to miss the elements that make Scottish climbing so memorable: vast landscapes; wildlife; deep, dark corries; exposure; unpredictable weather; pristine rock; flowers; running water. Climbing encompasses much more than the time on rock. Sitting in that auditorium, listening to legendary local mountaineers recount their days on Scotland’s 26 ‘Classic’ routes, I was glad to know I was not alone in feeling this way.
The following Monday I picked up a copy of the book and spent the evening devouring its contents, though in the back of my mind I knew where I was headed, for I remembered Ali Rose and Mark Chambers’s film of their one-day link-up of the seven routes in the Cairngorms, and I’d recently been missing the granite. I pulled out my map to pin the routes down. I had no intention of doing a one-day link, but a logical loop from the ski centre immediately stood out to me.
It was sorted, then. When Meagan (my partner of five years) moves here from Montreal after 18 months of long distance, we would head to the Cairngorms to begin a new chapter in our lives—and to climb three mega classics.
The approach into the Northern Corries from the Cairngorm ski centre is baffling, but excitement built as we left the car park, cafe, tubing park and chairlifts behind. Gradually, a long ribbon of black rock came into view, and soon, the entirety of Coire an t-Sneachda—daunting and captivating―was revealed. After a four-hour bus ride from Edinburgh, it was nice to be walking. We circumvented the Fiacaill Buttress, hopping over granite boulders, until finally looking down into Coire an Lochain.
‘Well, that’s us there,’ I said, pointing up to No. 4 Buttress.
Meagan looked down to the green lochan, then up. ‘How are we supposed to get up there?’
‘Up the grass below it.’
‘But that’s so steep!’
As one soon discovers when climbing in Scotland, there are two types of approaches. From a distance, both look arduous and, at times, impossible; but they’re ‘do-able’. The first consists of steep, well-trodden ‘paths’ on grass and boulders that only really require strong legs, stamina and good company to keep the spirits high. The second often involves bushwhacking through head-high bracken, ascending scree slopes and wet vegetation, navigating bog and moorland, and other horrors. Luckily, all the approaches for our climbs would fall into the first category.
We made our way down to the corrie floor, dropped our rucksacks with relief and soaked in the brilliance of the place. Being low down in a hollow, it felt wild and remote. A small burn fed the crystal-clear lochan, but otherwise, there was no sound; no birds or animals, just us. We pitched our tent and started up the steep slabs toward the towering buttresses. As Doug Lang reflected, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like for Frere and Walker to approach these cliffs in the summer of 1945. There was no ski centre at the time, no paths nor modern tourism and coaches to carry you 2,150ft up from Aviemore—and the world was at war.
Soon, we were standing at the base of Savage Slit.
Rather than a smooth, compact rock face, this dihedral seems to be composed of blocks stacked on top of each other with no bond between them, and the walls never truly converge—only two chockstones are wedged in at one-third and two-thirds height.
Racked up, I set off, stemming my way up. The blocks were deceiving. Each ledge and corner was rounded, but I moved calmly through the crux until I was standing on the first chockstone, suddenly immobile, staring into a five-metre abyss that ran the length of the buttress. Unlike the blocky exterior, which has been weathered and wrinkled like skin, the walls inside the slit were smooth. Can one climb up from inside? Lang says it would be masochistic, but what if …
‘You ok?’ Meagan shouted.
‘Yes, yes. Let me make a belay.’
She joined me on the ledge and stared in amazement. ‘HELLLOOOO!’ There was no echo. The wall simply swallowed the sound.
I set off once more, the climbing easing but the position finer with every move. For the next 40 metres, my right limbs walked up the slit’s right pillar while my left limbs followed a crack, so that my torso was in line with the dark, empty space inside the mountain. Up I went, stopping every few moves to glimpse a better view of the inside, but no sunlight could illuminate the cavernous slit. As Lang had predicted, a ‘dunt’ from my helmet marked my arrival at the second chockstone, which had dislodged itself from the right wall’s brick-like formation, and soon I was mantling onto the top ledge, making a belay, then taking in the slack as Meagan climbed.
Was the climb really already done?
‘I see why it’s a “classic”,’ she said, joining me. ‘I wish there was more, though!’
I coiled the ropes and prepared the abseil, but we stayed at the top for a while, absorbing the grandeur of the granite cliffs.
Dusk fell lazily over the Cairngorms. Back in the tent, as I rummaged through my rucksack for dinner, a strong, peaty smell permeated the air. To our dismay, whisky had leaked out of one bottle, though thankfully we still had more than enough. We dipped our feet into the lochan and raised a toast to our first night camping together in months—to love and commitment, the hardships and rewards of distance, and our first Classic Rock tick of the weekend.
A long overdue dram.
The Talisman is altogether different from Savage Slit: where the latter is a dark corner, if its impression were filled with alginate to form a mould and subsequently doubled in length, The Talisman would follow its outside.
We awoke early, the sun already high, and the routine we’d established years ago came back instinctively. Coffee, porridge, tent down and rucksacks packed, we worked together like a well-oiled machine. In an hour we were bracing ourselves against the wind on the plateau, looking back to where we’d camped. Three crows were perched on the boulders that had surrounded us, watching us, waiting to reclaim their space.
We walked over Ben Macdui (Meags ‘bagging’ her first Munro) and headed down to Loch Etchachan. White waves raced over it and two nearby tents slanted at nearly 45°. We opted to leave a rucksack behind a boulder and would decide later whether we’d camp by the loch or stay in the Hutchinson Memorial Hut; however, at the base of the climb, looking down 1,000m into the lonely corrie, tents were already popping up like mushrooms.
‘What day is it?’ I asked, tying in.
Well, that explained the tents, but why was no other party on the route? We didn’t complain. Looking up, I recalled Brian Lawrie’s impression: ‘A magnificent 300ft chunk of granite, diamond hard. Proudly it rears out of the rubble of the Corridor, as if flaunting the forces that will render it to dust.’ The Talisman follows an improbable line for its grade. When looking at the photograph of Creagan a’ Choire Etchachan in Classic Rock, it catches your eye immediately—a perfect rib adorning the left side of the black, phantom-shaped shadow, curving like a boomerang.
I set off up the ramp, which was much trickier than I expected, and arrived at the base of the slab. The depth of the gloomy Corridor behind me increased, but as I tip-toed across the wall toward the arête a sense of weightlessness took over until I stepped out of that daunting shadow into the light. The whole corrie opened up to me. Now, we were on the rib proper.
Great holds appeared one after the other in a fantastic position up the second pitch, though soon I was forced to stem, the fabled overhanging corner looming above me. Most consider this to be the technical crux of the climb. It reminded me of ‘Black Custard’ in Pass of Ballater. Without haste, high right foot smeared on the rib, I moved up delicately, my left hand finding the secret jug—relief! I mantled over, made a belay, and sat on the large shelf. I had found the initial unprotected pad up the slab to be the crux.
Meagan followed suit, moving gracefully until she was beneath the corner. I felt the rope slacken as she yanked out the last nut.
‘What do I do now?’ she asked. It was the first time I heard concern in her voice.
‘You’re aiming for the white block to your right. I’ve got you tight.’
Her hand padded up the rib until her fingers found the good holds, then her little blue shoe swung around, until all at once, with a grunt that seemed to burst forth from the corrie floor, her helmet popped out from the corner.
‘You’ve got it!’
Her left foot slipped but she held on, reaching for the left jug and just catching it.
‘Yes!’ I yelled, taking her in tight.
She exhaled in relief, a grin spreading across her red face. She collapsed beside me on the big ledge. ‘Classics, eh?’
We sat for a while and ate dried mango. The afternoon sun was delicious. With the technical difficulties behind us and one last pitch above, we talked for what must have been an hour—about family, books, friends, school. As we discovered soon after I moved to Edinburgh, there is only so much to talk about over video chat. Daily nuances slip through the cracks and the conversations blend into one, until one day they feel like a chore. I struggle to find a greater contrast to video calls than sitting together on a belay ledge on a summer’s day where, after intense concentration and teamwork to surmount the complexities of rock, the sudden exposure to vast space allows tensions to drain away and the communal sense of shared experience is profound. These moments are precious. Did Brooker and Grassick name this route The Talisman because they had a similar experience? I’ll never know, but it meant something.
Finally, the last pitch to the top ‘on the lip of the abyss’. I climbed slowly, savouring every hold on the immaculate rock and the wild exposure above the Corridor. I was greeted at the summit by a powerful gust of wind, and soon Meagan and I had each coiled a rope and were walking toward Loch Etchachan, the plateau dazzling in the golden light. We found our bag behind the boulder, took out the whisky and raised a toast to another incredible ‘Classic’.
At last, Loch Avon, the treasured jewel of the Cairngorms. It sat at the bottom of the deep basin, guarded by towering cliffs. Not a cloud in the cerulean sky. Pinks, greens, cobalt—everything radiated beneath the burning sun, and we welcomed the scorcher, for it had been a wet summer.
After pitching our tent in last night’s winds, Meagan and I had decided to lighten our rucksacks by putting a well-earned dent in the whisky. Consequently, we only left Loch Etchachan at 10am, though the lazy breakfast of porridge, coffee and a rinse in the loch summoned the spirits needed to climb our last ‘Classic’: The Clean Sweep. Following the stream up Coire Domhain from the Shelter Stone, I traced the outline of the route, which ran from the lowest to the highest point in the centre of Hell’s Lum. Three parties were already on it, but still, it inspired: a long green slab rose to meet the penultimate pink corner, which rose for 40 metres to a final tier of grey rock. It was the longest and most technical of the three routes, and we were buzzing.
The excitement was soon nearly stolen from us. While Meagan flaked the ropes and I racked up, a Dutchman was pouring water over his blistering fingers. He’d just slipped off the first pitch and slid down the hot slab for four metres, and now he recounted every horrid detail.
Great, I thought. In Classic Rock, Allen Fyffe recalls ‘Martin with big, white, wet, swollen fingers’. I looked down at my own fingers and then up the route. I regained my composure and tied in. Of all things a leader wants to hear before climbing, the Dutchman’s was the least of them, but finally, I left the poor fellow mid-sentence to his fingertips and started padding my way up toward the whale-back, mostly relying on friction. When I arrived at the crux, two others joined the entourage. From one of them, more encouragement: ‘Aye, well, last year I had to bail left where he is now. I nearly lost it!’
I silently mouthed obscenities. I had two options: make it to the ledge, or burn my fingertips. The former was slightly more appealing.
I placed a nut, took a deep breath—the last for two long moves—and made for the hairline crack on a high right foot, relying solely on friction. My fingertips tapped the rock nervously. Patience. Tap. Tap. Finally, they crimped the slim hold and I stood upright, catching my breath. I climbed fast to the belay ledge, glad my fingers weren’t peeling, and Meagan soon joined me.
The noonday sun was now blazing down and a bottleneck on the route hampered progress. We applied sunscreen, drank water and ate more mangos, but after 20 minutes there was still no movement. We stared at the loch, salivating. Perhaps we had had it too easy the past few days.
‘Should we abseil down?’ I asked reluctantly.
Meagan kept her gaze on the loch ahead. ‘No,’ she answered firmly. ‘People pay thousands to sit on a beachside resort for a week. Look at where our feet brought us?’
She was right. I was at last looking at a vision long-ago constructed by the words of Nan Shepherd, Sydney Scroggie and Allen Fyffe. Strewn across the corrie floor were the same granite boulders they’d seen, the rocks having tumbled down the towering cliff sides long before any of us were here, the loch’s white sand their finer counterparts. Stag Rocks, the Main Bastion and the Shelter Stone Crag, once unnamed, still stood defiantly, snow hanging in their hollows. I closed my eyes.
The Garbh Uisge cascaded down the boilerplate slabs in one great sweep while, to my left, the Feith Buidhe tumbled over boulders. I sat up and followed them to their confluence then ‘meander through the lochan-dotted moraine below into Loch Avon’.
Over the past three days, everything had gradually culminated in this moment: the lochs and corries; the solitude; the space; the climbs; our patience and conversation—and, although it was all plotted on a map, we could not have predicted their effects on us. Sitting on the belay ledge, far away from the depths of Loch Avon, I was grateful not only for Classic Rock and those who pioneered these incredible routes, but for these wild spaces.
A shout from above brought us out of our daydream, the party ahead nearly done with the third pitch. We’d been sitting for over an hour and were now sunkissed and dehydrated, but our fingertips were still intact, we hadn’t bailed, and look at this beautiful place!
We quickly climbed the wet second pitch. At the base of the pink rock, we the sun slipped behind the cliff, giving us respite from the heat.
I racked up and tied in, but before setting off, Meagan and I embraced. Eighteen months apart had been far too long; however, moments like these, perched high on splendid granite, remind us why we wait for love. There is no one else I’d rather spend my time with in the mountains, and at last, time seems to be on our side.
I set off up the chimney and relished one of Scotland’s finest pitches of rock.
Lead image – On top of Hell’s Lum, looking into Loch Avon, © Alex Marceau.
Camped in Coire an Lochain. © Alex Marceau.
Looking down The Talisman. © Alex Marceau.
Looking into Loch Avon. © Alex Marceau.